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Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting: The Human Right to Water

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AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting
The Human Right to Water
January 26-27, 2017

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Throughout the first day, participants discussed the role of the science and technology communities in upholding the human right to water and the implications of the human rights framework for scientists, engineers, and health professionals who work to improve access to safe, affordable water supplies. Sessions highlighted examples of actionable scientific research that is contributing to human rights-based water policies. In addition, panelists shared models for collaborative partnerships with frontline communities. Meeting attendees participated in small group discussions in which they identified specific actions members of the Coalition can take within their associations and institutions.

Coalition meetings convene scientists, engineers, and health professionals with human rights leaders and policy makers to discuss emerging issues at the nexus of science and human rights. The Coalition serves as a catalyst for the increased involvement of scientific, engineering, and health associations and their members in human rights-related activities. 

Meeting Sessions

Welcoming Remarks and Keynote Address: Human Rights and Flint's Water Crisis

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Jessica Wyndham, Interim Director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program (SRHRL) opened the meeting, noting that both the scientific and human rights communities are on alert, evaluating the statements and watching closely the actions of the new US administration in areas including climate change, the environment, health, reproductive rights, and freedom of information and freedom of expression. Wyndham specifically referred to a statement by AAAS CEO Rush Holt about reports that federal agencies have issued directives to staff that may silence the voices of scientific researchers and others working for the federal government. Wyndham called for human rights and scientific, engineering and health communities to come together around common goals, adding that the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition is the best existing forum in which to hold such discussions and develop a joint strategy.

Dorothy J. Phillips, Director-at-Large of the American Chemical Society (ACS) spoke to ACS’ role in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, and described several ACS efforts in this arena, including the ACS Science and Human Rights Network. She then introduced keynote speaker Marc Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech and a nationally renowned expert in the chemistry and toxicity of urban water supplies in the United States. Addressing the audience in the aftermath of the discovery of high levels of lead in the water system of Flint, Michigan, Edwards framed his presentation in terms of water infrastructure inequality in the United States, including lack of access to both adequate quantities of water and to water of safe quality.

Edwards argued that the crisis in Flint, Michigan shows that old infrastructure, especially old pipes, has the potential to significantly harm or kill people, due to both lead exposure and through exposure to dangerous bacteria that grows in old pipes. Though it has been recognized since 300 B.C. that lead exposure was dangerous to people’s health, it was the law to only use lead pipes in construction in the United States for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Edwards drew from a variety of examples to sketch out the problems that water infrastructure inequality causes in the United States. For private well owners, who make up 16% of the United States population, testing in Virginia has shown that lead levels in unregulated private wells match the levels seen in Flint, Michigan. With regard to public water systems, many cities cannot afford to upgrade or maintain water infrastructure systems. Edwards argued that the concept of the “meritocracy” helps to explain water crises in the United States. In a meritocracy, underclass citizens are made to feel that they deserve their misfortune. However, as a human right, water should not be distributed by merit, and citizens should not be forced to only receive the quality of water that they and their cities can afford. Edwards explored this concept through the case studies of St. Joseph, Louisiana, where efforts to fix infrastructure that transported brown water saturated with iron, manganese, and lead were hindered by local corruption; Washington, D.C., where a covered-up water crisis led to increased miscarriage risks, fetal deaths, and lead poisoning in thousands of children; and Flint, Michigan, where a switch to a new water source without adding the anticorrosive agent orthophosphate to the water to protect pipes caused significant lead poisoning, an outbreak of the Legionella bacteria causing twelve deaths, and a breakdown of the water infrastructure. Edwards also provided examples of public agencies and state and local governments hiding incidents of high levels of lead in water without accountability across the United States, creating a false sense of security amongst people in cities.

Edwards made the case for the need for citizens to be informed and aware of potential risks to their health and the health of their children. He encouraged scientists to collaborate with citizens in order to aid in efforts to improve the water infrastructure in their towns and cities. He concluded by citing and applauding the bipartisan support for Flint, but reinforced that the problem of adequate water quantity and quality exists across the United States.

Plenary Session I: Actionable Science and the Human Right to Water

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The first plenary session featured a panel of scientists and policy-makers who discussed their current work and how it relates to the internationally recognized right to safe, accessible, and affordable water. Joyell Arscott, a graduate student in the Duke University School of Nursing and ELISS Fellow, moderated the discussion.

The first speaker, Inga Winkler, is an expert on the legal aspects of the human rights to water and sanitation, having served as the legal adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on those rights, and as a consultant for various international organizations and NGOs including the European Parliament, the UN Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, and the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Winkler took a step back to focus on what the human right to water is, and to explore opportunities for collaborations between human rights practitioners and scientists. The human right to safe drinking water was only recognized by the UN in 2010 as a right that “entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” To put these principles into practice, Winkler suggested that social and natural scientists can aid in clarifying priorities for water usage and contribute to standardizing the meanings of “safe” and “accessible” water for different populations, through collaboration with and participation of community members. She also recommended that special focus be placed on how the right to water interacts with the broader human rights to equality and nondiscrimination, and conversely, how lack of access to water contributes to inequality.

Mauricio Pardón, the Senior Advisor for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), focused on the importance of investing in universal access to quality water and sanitation services through innovation, accountable and just governance, and the safe and expeditious construction of infrastructure. Pardón opened by drawing connections between the right to water and sanitation and the right to health, a link that is well established, and noting that ill health is associated with access only to unsafe water, or inadequate access to water. In order to realize the right to water and sanitation through universal access to quality services, Pardón argued that new innovation and technology are required, alongside societal will, available resources, and political capital. Pardón proposed several necessary potential innovations, including new water testing methods available to anyone at any time, the development of ways to reduce viruses and protozoan parasite pathogens in water, and improved on-site sanitation methods. He concluded by noting that the secret to good innovation is adequate communication between scientists, engineers, planners, and operators, and urged those communities to work together for the realization of the human right to water and sanitation. Click here to view his presentation, or click here for a text version. 

Brian Shmaefsky, professor of biology and environmental science at Lone Star College and a member of the AAAS On-call Scientists initiative, described a case study to illustrate how scientists can participate in advocacy and human rights work. In Bangladesh, tannery industries were producing hexavalent chromium that polluted the water supplies in the region of Hazaribagh due to improper disposal. To resolve the issue, it was proposed to relocate the tannery industries. However, protecting health and the water supply needed to be balanced with ensuring that the local population remained employed. To the local community, the right to remain employed was of primary importance, and improving the water pollution problem was secondary. To approach this issue, Shmaefsky described the need for scientists to use science to solve non-objective issues and human-centric problems. Working with local scientists, environmental science college students, and other stakeholders, the team collected pollution data and identified epidemiological studies surrounding hexavalent chromium and the environmental health impacts of the tanneries, to develop options to present to the local community to decrease the environmental and health harms while maintaining local incomes. The case study demonstrates how accurate scientific data and economically feasible technological assessments can provide core support for policy that meets human needs.

Suren Moodliar of the Color of Water Project presented a second case study, focused on water shut-offs in Boston, Massachusetts. In Boston, unlike many other cities in the United States, water issues do not arise from old, failing infrastructure, but from water shutoffs, and a lack of basic data about the frequency and location of shut-offs. Groups like the Color of Water Project must rely on anecdotes and Freedom of Information Act requests to access data, which is still insufficient to fully illuminate the problem of water insecurity in a modern, wealthy city. However, the information they were able to gather showed that neighborhoods serving people of color were ten times more likely to receive water shut-off notices, and that for every percentage increase of people of color in a neighborhood, there is a corresponding 2-3% increase in the issuance of water shut-off notices. Moodliar argued that increased transparency from water agencies is needed so that crucial data on water access can be used to challenge systemic inequalities related to race and class.

Plenary Session II: What is the Role of Scientists in Supporting the Human Right to Water?

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The second plenary session focused on how scientists can successfully and effectively collaborate with communities when conducting work that informs decisions, practices, and policies that impact public health, safety, and wellbeing. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, facilitated the discussion.

Catherine Coleman Flowers is founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation (ACRE), a non-profit organization that trains and mobilizes citizens to sustainably improve quality of life to address the root causes of poverty. Flowers opened the panel by presenting a short video clip that illustrated the state of water and sanitation in Lowndes County, Alabama. Due to the lack of proper infrastructure, like functioning septic systems, and poverty in the area, homeowners have no real solution to dealing with raw sewage. The sewage pollutes streams, rivers, and soil, endangering the health of residents. Flowers has been fighting for elected officials and agencies to acknowledge and address this problem in rural communities, but lack of public funding means that officials assert that homeowners are responsible for maintaining infrastructure, even if they can’t afford it. This problem extends across the United States, where underserved rural populations do not have access to wastewater disposal. Flowers noted that climate change is exacerbating this issue, and cited an example of a good collaboration between scientists and the local community, which led to the documentation of five tropical parasites in Lowndes County.

Environmental health expert Sacoby Wilson, who is an assistant professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland – College Park, picked up the thread of the discussion. He began by describing the lack of basic amenities, such as publicly regulated water and sewer infrastructure, in many communities as an environmental justice issue. Due to racism, classism, and segregation, these communities were not supplied with water and sewer infrastructure as part of the New Deal. Additionally, many of these rural towns and communities are unincorporated, meaning that they lack any kind of political representation and are not engaged in the decision-making process. Wilson argued that many scientists who work with these communities are performing “extractive science,” in which they document and collect data on the problem, but do not actively contribute to solutions. In academia, the most highly valued aspect of science is inquiry and knowledge production, compared to the aspects of integration, teaching, engagement, and application. To change these valuations and move towards equitable and just collaborations, Wilson recommended that there must be funding and management parity between scientists and community members, and that community members should be actively involved in collecting data. Partnerships emerge from relationships, which require mutual respect, honesty, and humility on both sides. To support communities, scientists should understand their place of power in relation to the community and place higher value on the knowledge that lived experience provides.

Yanna Lambrinidou, affiliate faculty in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech and founder of the non-profit organization Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, drew on her personal experience with lead in drinking water in Washington, D.C., where she was active in the fight to expose the issue. Lambrinidou described the two lessons she has learned in working in this area. First science has a crucial role to play in helping communities redress environmental injustice, but impacted communities have an equally if not greater role to play in these struggles. Effective, just, and long-lasting fixes must include social solutions that empower communities through knowledge, skills, and the confidence to question, challenge, and hold those in power accountable, to demand seats at the decision-making table, and to ensure that their rights are protected in the present and the future. Second, the capacity and necessity of communities to transform themselves through crises of injustice is systematically ignored by scientists, the government and the press. The resulting dominant narrative of scientific engagement with these communities emphasizes techno-centric constructions of the issue. This narrative privileges scientific knowledge and definitions, and paint a picture of the “hero-scientist,” which ignores the crucial contributions of community members. It also makes it difficult to distinguish between just and unjust interventions in environmental crises, where some interventions may be hailed as “successful” even if they are seen as paternalistic and exploitative by the community. However, scientists’ engagement with communities is necessary for social justice and change. Just engagement may not be a “feel-good” process for scientists, because it requires a transfer of power from scientists to communities to achieve power-equilibrium.

Report Back from Small Group Discussions and Closing Remarks

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Learn More About the Human Right to Water

The following resources provide an overview of the challenge and work in progress: 

The Human Right to Water: A Research Guide and Annotated Bibliography by Jootaek Lee, Northeastern University School of Law, and Maraya Best, PHRGE

"Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation," the website of the UN Special Rapporteur on these rights;

The Human Right to Water Bill in California: An Implementation Framework for State Agenciesa report by the Berkeley Clinic; and 

Tapped Out: Threats to the Human Right to Water in the Urban United States by the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute Fact-Finding Practicum

Watch a video produced by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on their visit to Detroit, Michigan in 2011:

When & where? 
January 26 - 27, 2017
AAAS Headquarters
1200 New York Ave NW
Washington, DC 20005


AAAS News Story

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